Napoleon XIV was the pseudonym of a guy name Jerry Samuels who worked as a recording engineer and revered Johnnie Ray. He'd written a song for him ("To Ev'ry Girl - To Ev'ry Boy") and a 1964 hit for Sammy Davis Jr. - "The Shelter of Your Arms." He was a part time lounge singer - the straightest of old school pop music.
Then in 1966 he wrote perhaps the most affecting novelty record in American pop music history. For years I thought that "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" was about an ex-girlfriend. She's left him, and now he's heading for the loony bin. That's what you might expect would expect to drive a man insane. But a close examination of the lyrics shows that it's actually that his dog has run away.
The song is fairly simple, but odd. In his liner notes to The Second Coming album, Dr. Demento claims that it's not really even a song. The Wikipedia page describes the song as being spoken rather than sung. It certainly sounds like a song to me. You can sing the thing back. It's sort of spoken, but it's "spoken" in specific rhythms and pitches - which makes it a melody. It's fairly simple melodically, but highly memorable if ever you hear it once.
With his background as a recording engineer, Samuels was really big (obsessive would be a good word here) about technical tricks. He goes on at length in the notes for the 1996 album about the exact techniques of his production process. The key trick here was a thing with varying the speed of the tape as he was recording the lead vocal, which had a lot to do with getting the special crazy effect.
The record was a huge instant phenomenon. It was all over the radio. It reached #3 on the Billboard Top 40 and sold a million copies in about two weeks. However, the real testament to the unique power of the song was the sudden drop of the record. Radio stations across the land quickly pulled the record. Apparently in some cases it was claimed by radio stations to be for fear of potentially offending advocates of the mentally ill - though I've never seen any sign that there was the least peep of any such protest.
My theory is that the record scared the public. It's really catchy and unusual sounding, and it will draw you right in. It's an awesome "novelty" record, and it's really clever. But once you hear it a few times and get past the novelty of the sound, it's not humorous or funny at all. I was three years old in 1966, so I missed the phenomenon. But if this thing were coming at you in heavy rotation and you were hearing it coming at you several times a day wherever you went, I could well imagine it creeping you out real bad. This may be just a really good artistic affect from a perfectly well balanced record maker - Samuels doesn't seem to have ever been in a nuthouse or even in therapy, but it sure sounds like it's coming from a really dark place.
The record label of course wanted an album right away, but Samuels was in no way prolific enough to just whip up an instant album. So they brought in Jim Lehner and Bob Gosh (a comedy writer and a songwriter) to write most of the rest of the album They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaaa! They wrote it all to what at that point would be called the insanity gimmick. As you might expect of such corporate product, some of it was just not very interesting. You wouldn't be missing much if you never hear "Doin' the Napoleon."
On the other hand, some of this turned out pretty interesting. The professional songwriting turned out some interesting material, and Samuels got the most out of it. Partly, Samuels the recording engineer added a lot to the songs with little technical tricks and weird things in the arrangements. Partly, Samuels legitimately added the real animating crazy to the gimmickry. Most of the album turned out pretty interesting. I'm particularly disturbed and thus impressed by "I'm in Love With My Little Red Tricycle."
The 1996 Rhino Records album The Second Coming includes the entirety of the 1966 Warner Brothers album, along with eight bonus songs recorded over the next 30 years. The main things of interest there are several outtakes from an aborted 1968 follow up album, which Samuels was working on in his own sweet obsessive geek time.
Samuels found his professional niche by creating a unique little talent booking agency, and said that he only bothered to co-operate with this re-issue album for the sake of finally getting to release "The Explorer" from those 1968 recordings. He strongly felt that this was the best record he ever made. It's really not a song at all, but a fairly intense sound effects record. It involves a guy having an involved jungle sex fantasy while going to the bathroom. Reading his description of the making of the record in the CD liner notes and listening closely, you can see how this was probably his biggest technical achievement. But again, it's not a song at all and doesn't seem to have near the real emotional content of the hit. It's pretty interesting at least.
His very best song though, give or take the hit, was "Goofin' on the Job." This also came from those 1968 sessions, and involves a guy sitting in the office obsessing over a picture of an ex-girlfriend. For starters, this was definitely a real song with a melody, mood swings and dynamics. This one even seemed to freak the creator's monkey. He described this "surrealistic study in manic depression" as the only song on the album with a "negative theme." So he would apparently consider even "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Haaaa!" to be fairly positive, but "Goofin' on the Job" to be harsh. Yup, it's that crazy. Personally, I'd take it head to head with the hit.
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